By Dan Heyman
Economic research is lending support to folks backing a new Birthplace of Rivers National Monument in eastern West Virginia.
A report from the group Small Business Majority found national monuments contributed more than $150 million a year to local economies.
A previous study, specifically about the birthplace proposal, said it would support 140 more jobs a year in Richwood, Marlinton and other towns near the Virginia border.
Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester says monument status would let the outside world know how wonderful that wilderness is.
“Not only for the people that are here that enjoy it and always have,” he says. “But to really put yourself on the map and say ‘this is something special you ought to come and look at what we have.’ And they probably have never been to your neck of the woods before.”
More than 200 area small business owners and community officials have joined the effort to get the White House to make the designation. It involves federal land that’s already part of the Monongahela National Forest.
Manchester says some have expressed concern about the feds expanding their holdings in the area, but notes many were reassured to learn the land is already under federal ownership.
He says folks in Lewisburg were interested to learn that new national monuments in other states created a 40 percent jump in visitors the first year, which could mean tens of thousands of new tourists, especially since there are no other wilderness monuments in the area.
“This would be a stand-alone place and would set itself off, and be something that people seek out,” says Manchester. “Spend money in local shops, to spend the night, to extend their stays.”
Statewide, public officials are worried about the future of the economy, with the fall in coal production. Manchester says tourism is not a quick fix, but it can be part of the solution.
“It’s a challenging time to say the least,” he says. “But people need to be reaching out and grabbing for opportunities. A national monument is one of those that may not come along every day.”
The birthplace backers hope to get monument status approved by the end of 2016.